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Crist to ballyhoo Florida in Israel

The trip is meant to drum up business and promote ties.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 26, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist leaves Sunday for Israel to lead a delegation of Florida political and business leaders on a weeklong mission aimed at improving trade and cultural ties between the two states.

What might otherwise be a routine goodwill trip takes on added urgency because of the potential of Florida's property insurance and still-unresolved property tax problems to drag down the real estate market that is vital to the state's economy.

"I feel a duty and an obligation to continue to push forward and do everything we can in a positive way to be sure that the world knows Florida is open for business," Crist said.

Israel is not a top trade partner with Florida. In 2006, it ranked 48th among 50 countries accepting Florida exports, taking in $150-million in goods and services. That number is actually 23 percent lower than the 2005 figure, according to Enterprise Florida, the economic development group sponsoring the trip.

During the six-day visit, the Florida delegation will attend a U.S. Embassy briefing, meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and opposition leaders and attend events with Israeli business and military experts.

The group also may visit Sderot, the town bordering Gaza that recently has been a frequent target of Palestinian rocket attacks.

Crist decided during his campaign last year that he would lead a series of trade missions to foreign countries. He chose to visit Israel first and announced the decision in his inaugural address Jan. 2.

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Boca Raton Democrat and friend of Crist's, had urged the governor to make Israel his first foreign destination.

"It's important for the governor of Florida to be well-versed in trying to increase economic and people-to-people and cultural relations between Florida and Israel," Wexler said.

The congressman said Israeli leaders will be happy to hear about the Florida Legislature's recent passage of a bill requiring the state to divest itself of about $1-billion in stocks in companies that do business with the energy sector in Iran.

"That is an extremely important issue in Israel," Wexler said.

Crist has said he will sign the bill into law.

As Crist rides a wave of first-year popularity, Israel's top leader, Olmert, is badly weakened after a scathing report on his handling of a war with Lebanon and calls for his resignation by more than 100,000 protesters.

While the Florida group is in the country, Israel's Labor Party faces a pivotal primary election that could leave Olmert without a ruling majority.

"Olmert is in a precarious position," said Tampa's Herb Swarzman, chairman of the Florida-Israel Institute. Swarzman, who is joining Crist, also accompanied former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez on their trips to Israel.

The trip to Israel was organized by Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private economic development agency that is heavily supported by public money.

The last time a Florida governor visited Israel was in November 1999, when Bush led a similar tour in his first year in office. Florida has the third-largest Jewish population among U.S. states, behind New York and California.

The 40-member group, which departs Sunday morning from Miami, includes two members of Congress from Florida, Wexler and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami; three state legislators, two of them Democrats; and about a dozen business leaders, most from South Florida.

Three Tampa Bay area leaders will make the trip. They are Jimmy Aviram, president of ANB Enterprises, a St. Petersburg real estate firm; Nancy Riley of Clearwater, president of the Florida Association of Realtors; and Swarzman of the Florida-Israel Institute.

Three members of Crist's staff will accompany the governor, as will a six-member security detail from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Crist's first overseas trip comes as he's being rumored as a potential vice presidential candidate in 2008, a reflection largely of his popularity in polls and a new state law that allows him to run for federal office without having to resign as governor.

Images of Crist with foreign heads of state could bolster the new governor's national political credentials.

"That may be," Crist said, "but my concern is with Florida."

Crist has been to Israel once, in 1997, when his father persuaded him to visit the state after making a speech in Cyprus, his grandfather's homeland.

Then as now the threat of violence was a concern, Crist said.

"I remember my mom saying, 'Charlie, I really don't want you to go,'" Crist said. "I went anyway. I just thought it was important to do, and even more so this time."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

Fast Facts:

 

Who's going with Gov. Crist

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami

State Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach

Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach

Jimmy Aviram, president, ANB Enterprises, St. Petersburg

Yitschak Ben Gad, consul general, Consulate of Israel, Miami

Arlene DiBenigno, Crist's deputy chief of staff

Itchko Ezratti, president, GL Homes, Sunrise

Isaac Fisher, principal, Capital Realty Services, Coral Gables

Thomas Kuntz, chairman, president, CEO, SunTrust

George LeMieux, Crist's chief of staff

Stacy Ritter, Broward County commissioner

Nancy Riley, president, Florida Association of Realtors, Clearwater

Harry Sargeant, executive, Sargeant Marine, Boca Raton

Ned Siegel, president, Siegel Group, Boca Raton

Herb Swarzman, president, Florida-Israel Institute, Tampa

Source: Enterprise Florida